President Joe Biden departed Israel Friday afternoon to make a historic flight between Tel Aviv and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
Earlier, the president cheered Saudi Arabia’s decision to open its airspace to Israeli planes in the hours before his Air Force One flight.
‘Saudi Arabia’s historic decision to open its airspace for all civilian planes, including those flying to and from Israel, is an important step towards building a more integrated and stable Middle East region,’ Biden said in a statement Friday morning from Jerusalem.
The move marked a longstanding ban on Israeli flights overflying Saudi Arabia.
The American president took credit for the thaw.
‘While this opening has long been discussed, now, thanks to months of steady diplomacy between my Administration and Saudi Arabia, it is finally a reality,’ Biden said.
‘Today, I will be the first president of the United States to fly from Israel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia,’ he added.
Former President George W. Bush had previously flown between Israel and Saudi’s capital Riyadh.
Former President Donald Trump flew from Saudi Arabia to Israel, on his first trip abroad as president.
‘As we mark this important moment, Saudi Arabia’s decision can help build momentum toward Israel’s further integration into the region, including with Saudi Arabia,’ Biden also said. ‘I will do all that I can, through direct diplomacy and leader-to-leader engagement, to keep advancing this groundbreaking process.’
After spending Friday in East Jerusalem and meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, in Bethlehem, Biden departed for Jeddah, where he will meet with Saudi’s controverisal Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Biden was given a send-off on the Ben Gurion International Airport’s tarmac by Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog.
Biden shook hands with the Israel leaders after the White House said in advance of the trip that the president would be limiting contact due to an uptick in cases of COVID-19.
Reporters immediately questioned if the decision was to avoid a photo-op of Biden shaking hands with MBS, as the Saudi crown prince is called.
Biden tested negative for COVID-19 Thursday, the White House said Friday.
President Joe Biden waved as he departed Israel Friday – making a historic flight between the Ben Gurion Airport, outside of Tel Aviv, and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
President Joe Biden boards Air Force One at Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport in advance of his flight Friday afternoon to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
President Joe Biden shakes the hand of Israel’s President Isaac Herzog (third from right), while Prime Minister Yair Lapid (center) also sends off the American president from the Ben Gurion Airport tarmac Friday afternoon
President Joe Biden, wearing his trademark aviators, walks across the tarmac of the Ben Gurion Airport outside of Tel Aviv, in advance of his historic flight to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
President Joe Biden departs in Marine One from Bethlehem after meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas
President Joe Biden will meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (pictured), the de facto ruler of the country, in Jeddah on Friday
President Biden said his position on Jamal Khashoggi’s (above) murder has been ‘clear’: ‘I always bring up human rights but my position on Khashoggi had been clear. If anyone doesn’t understand it in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, then they haven’t been around for a while,’ he said
Hanan Elatr Khashogi told Fox News she met with three administration officials who assured her that ‘the human rights issue, and on top of it, my husband’s tragedy, it will come up’ when Biden meets the crown prince on Friday in Jeddah.
Biden, however, dodged the question when asked about it during a press conference in Israel said his position on human rights has been ‘positively clear.’
‘My views have made it positively clear. I have never been quiet about talking about human rights,’ he said when asked about the meeting.
The president, when pressed again, said his position is ‘clear.’
‘I always bring up human rights but my position on Khashoggi had been clear. If anyone doesn’t understand it in Saudi Arabia or anywhere else, then they haven’t been around for a while,’ he said.
And Khashoggi’s fiance Hatice Cengiz said the president must ask what has happened to the journalist’s body, which has never been recovered.
‘He has to ask what happened to his body? Where is his body? Still we do not have any answer,’ she told the Associated Press. ‘And people need to get the truth in this case. And we cannot forget.’
‘We cannot forget what happened to Jamal.’
Jamall Khashoggi’s widow Hanan Elatr Khashogi told Fox News she met with three administration officials who assured her that the slain journalist’s murder ‘will come up’
Biden, 79, called Saudi Arabia a ‘pariah’ state during the 2020 campaign after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that MBS ordered Khashoggi’s muder in Turkey in 2018. The journalist had written criticially of the crown prince’s reforms in Saudi.
The White House has said Biden stands by that statement but it also has taken great pains to emphasize the president is meeting with the aging King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and his government, which would include MBS, who, at the age of 36, is Salman’s heir to the throne and serves as defense minister.
Biden’s meetings with the royals will take place Friday night.
On Saturday he’ll attend the GCC+3 summit to talk oil prices and energy issues.
‘When I see the Saudi leadership tomorrow, I’ll be carrying a direct message,’ Biden said. ‘A message of peace and of the extraordinary opportunities a more stable integrated region could bring to the region and, quite frankly, to the rest of the world.’
The president argued, however, that he is also going to reassert the United States’ influence in the region to counter the growing power of Russia and China on the energy market.
‘The reason I’m going to Saudi Arabia, though, is much broader than as to promote U.S. interests,’ he said at his press conference with Israeli Prime MIinister Yair Lapid.
‘I think we have an opportunity to reassert what I think we made a mistake of walking away from – our influence in the Middle East. I’m going to meet with nine other heads of state. There are so many issues at stake. I want to make clear that we can continue to lead in a region and not create a vacuum,’ he said.
He was also clear he wants to counter growing Russian and Chinese influence.
Russia is the second largest energy producer in the world after Saudi and China is a huge energy consumer and purchaser.
‘The vacuum is filled by China or Russia – against the interest of Israel and the United States. The purpose of the visit is to coordinate with the nine heads of state,’ he said.
Human rights advocates have encouraged Biden not to make the trip without bringing up Khashoggi’s killing.
Khashoggi’s widow, Hanan Elatr Khashoggi, said that a national security official told her that Biden will mention her late husband’s name when he meets with MBS,
‘They assured me they will bring this concern up special, about the case of my husband, Jamal Khashoggi,’ she told Spectrum News.
Biden will be watched closely for his words, his actions and his body language when he is the same room as the crown prince.
The White House hasn’t said if Biden will shake hands with MBS – a photo opportunity the prince would love but would cause headaches for the president among Democrats furious with Saudi Arabia’s poor record on human rights.
Officials initially said Biden wouldn’t shake any hands on his four-day Middle East trip, pointing to an uptick in COVID cases – and not forthcoming interactions with the controversial Saudi crown prince – that triggered the decision.
Biden, however, almost immediately started shaking hands with Israeli officials after landing outside of Tel Aviv Wednesday.